Carolyn’s Online Magazine
THE ART IF THE INTERVIEW:
A DISCUSSION ON RULES AND TECHNIQUES
Although most writers are familiar with interviewing techniques, reviewing them is a good reminder.
While writing for the Fay-West newspaper my editor asked me to do a retirement story on a man named Bob. When we met at an agreed upon public place, a local fast food restaurant, we sat down and began talking—that is, I began talking. He remained mute.
I soon realized that he wasn’t going to talk, much less answer any questions I might have for him.
I recalled an adoption home-study I did while working for an adoption agency. The couple was petrified. I understood—to them, I held the key to their future in my hands.
When I realized they weren’t going to cooperate in the interview, I made a difficult decision.
One rule of interviewing is that the subject is the person being interviewed. It isn’t about the interviewer, and for the interviewer to break into the conversation with his/her story is inappropriate.
However, rules are made to be broken, as is said.
I broke the above stated rule, abandoned my professionalism, and began sharing my personal story—at the time my husband Monte and I were going through an adoption process in our own county.
As I shared my story I watched the couple visibly relax. The home study continued with much success.
I broke the same rule with Bob. I began sharing tidbits of my life with him, picking those that paralleled the questions I understood to be in his life—simple things, like parenting. As soon as I shared a tidbit, he began talking—on the spoken subject. I had to continually reveal tidbits from my life to get his responses.
The newspaper editor and other journalists on staff were amazed when I returned to the office. They had given me the assignment because they knew Bob was a difficult interview, and they had expected me to return with insufficient information for an article.
I was taught that an interview is about the interviewee, not about the interviewer. My role was to inquire about Bob’s situation, not to discuss my life or debate issues with him.
But rules are meant to be broken on occasion. I’d experienced this twice, and in so doing I’d learned a major interview rule: flexibility.
What about the art of interviewing? What makes a writer (or a caseworker, or anyone else) a successful interviewer? What determines a successful interview?
I believe my responsibility in interviewing is the product—an article that satisfies the interviewee first, then readers next and then the editors. This does not mean shaping the article to please the interviewee. It means phrasing the truth in such a manner that it can be told to the interviewee’s satisfaction. It means getting the point across to the reader about who the interviewee is or what the subject is.
Articles should educate, clarify, persuade or amuse—whatever is intended—a neutral reader, according to Bobbi Linkemer, a ghostwriter, editor, and author of 12 books under her own name.
For her the heart of research has always been the ability to elicit information from others. It never occurs to her to rummage through magazines or official documents at a library (or the Internet!). When she wants to know about something, she locates experts on that subject and tries to crawl inside their minds, to cram everything they would tell her into whatever time they gave her, and to understand things about which she knew absolutely nothing. Sometimes she started out knowing so little she couldn’t even frame a decent question.
I often suggested story ideas to my editor. Often he would ask what’s the point, the core of the story?
My response would be “I don’t know—there’s this and that, but after the interview I can tell you more.” He learned to give me freedom, shaking his head, after I successfully came through with story after story, often returning with a completely unexpected point than I expected.
I differ with Linkemer’s technique. For me it’s detrimental to go to an interview “cold turkey.” Whenever possible, I do basic research on the topic or person before the interview and compose a few pertinent questions, providing some structure with which to begin the interview, and to remove it from “stuck spots.” Otherwise, I leave the interview open-ended, hoping the interviewee will share the surprise nugget that will provide the story with a unique voice. I keep the interview conversational.
NPR radio host Terry Gross prepares for her Fresh Air interviews similarly.
“I want it to have a narrative, a beginning, middle and end, and I want each question to build on the one before. Writing out my questions beforehand is an exercise in thinking through the structure of the interview.”
After defining the structure, she too feels free to follow whatever direction the interview leads her.
Linkemer considers her the first interview with a subject critical because it provides her with the big picture, key contacts, and politically correct language, since she indicates there is no further contact with the interviewee.
Unless there is no opportunity to contact the interviewee later, I consider the first interview similarly, but I always ask the interviewee for permission to contact him or her to clarify details, and for a contact phone number or other means. Rarely have I had any refusal. Sometimes I contact the interviewee 10 times to clarify things I don’t understand.
Skills essential to any successful interview are listening and empathy. Collins agrees.
“A good interviewer is a good listener. It’s almost like a conversation. It’s frustrating when a reporter is asking you questions and you know he isn’t listening to you, but rather looking down at his notebook and reading the next question he plans to ask.”
I discovered taking notes on a laptop is beneficial, because, being a pretty good typist, I can maintain eye contact while taking notes. Except for pauses to type specific data correctly, I rarely look down at my hands. I correct typos and improve on the notes shortly after the interview.
I also keep in mind that some interviewees are made uncomfortable by the laptop, at which point I resort to pen and paper.
Good listening requires something else—the removal of the interviewer’s ego.
Linkemer notes that “it takes the ability to get your ego out of the way so that you become virtually invisible, and the spotlight is on your expert, not on you.”
This was the rule I broke on the two interviews I referred to. An interview isn’t about you; it’s about the other person. It’s about what that person knows or has experienced or can share with you that will add to your understanding of your topic.
I broke the rule not to be egotistic, but as a means to encourage my interviewees to open up.
Good listening also enables me to compose the story in the voice of the person I am interviewing. Thus, each story I write is unique to itself.
Finally, the type of questions asked are important.
In comparing my feature articles with articles on the same subject written by other journalists, I notice a difference. For example, in comparing articles on a new pastor in town, mine and another newspaper’s journalist—I found both included the pertinent data—who, what, where. However, that’s where the other article stopped. Mine continued when I asked the pastor about his faith journey. His answers revealed who he was.
The Collins seems to agree.
“The best questions….I’m always happy to answer. `Why did you title a particular poem?’ `Do you title before or after you write a poem?’ An interviewer might pick out a line of a poem and ask me a specific question about that line…(rather than asking broad-based questions like) `What do you think about the future of poetry?’…`Why don’t more people read poems?’…Just because you can do one aspect of a thing, it doesn’t make you an expert. There are distinct differences in performance art. To step outside that performance and to comment on the future of it is futile. If you ask helium-filled questions, you’ll get helium-filled answers.”
In any interview, the interviewer must be able to think fast and creatively.
Linkemer states it this way: “You must be able to take in and process information on the spot…You must assume that this is your only chance to ask, and that each question or comment will expand your grasp of the subject matter.” The ability to think fast and creatively, to “read between the lines for nonverbal clues….(and) integrate new information into what you already know” has allowed me to follow the interview in its unique direction, even that of the surprise.
I’ve found through the years that the interview is one of the best part of writing. Taking the interview results and working them into an article is often challenging. However, when completed, it’s rewarding that someone trusted you enough they not only provided you with the interview, they allowed you to write their story.